Arigato from Japan

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Tokyo is as Tokyo was, big and bright – Return to Tohoku #4

And I’m back on the blogging.  I wrote pretty much of all of this while I was in Japan and honestly it’s a bit too travel blog like for me, but it marks how I was feeling at the time.  I’ve added in a few things and taken out some of the more flowery language.  If anything it’s just a starting point for me to begin to actually put down my thoughts and feelings on the trip that I returned from a little under a month ago.  

Arriving in Japan felt more normal then I had assumed it would.  There wasn’t a wave of culture shock or nostalgia that swept me up in strong emotions.  Instead, it felt pretty regular.  The only difference from all other times that I’ve returned toJapanwas that I stood in the line for foreign passports, and it did make me feel like Japan was no longer my home, I was just another tourist.

While it all felt like it did a year ago, certain things stood out to me despite having been off the plane for no more than forty minutes.  When I arrived in the Narita JR office to claim my rail pass, bobble head Akabekos that are ubiquitous in Fukushima tourist spots, adorned the desk, along with a large Daruma in the corner.  I thought that this was, at the very least, a decent, understated show of solidarity with the Tohoku area.  And most likely, very few Japanese people outside of Tohoku know what the Akabeko is.  But, as I’ve blogged before, for the JET community, the Akabeko has become the unofficial mascot.  It’s the name of JET soccer teams and has become a symbol that foreigners within Fukushima identify with.

Arriving at Tokyo station, at around 6:30pm, emerging from the rather spacious and partially empty train, I was thrown in with the orderly throngs of people surging through the labyrinth that is Tokyo station.  A wash in a sea of white button up shirts and black suits, I joined the masses.  After walking through Tokyo station for a few minutes, the sheer size of it once again amazed me.  Moving through the groups of people, there was very little noise.  Outside on the street, I felt out of place without a clear umbrella to shield myself from the rain.  Here, the silence was even more deafening. Tokyo station, while being a major hub, is surrounded in tall office buildings and doesn’t have much of a night life.  People on the streets were filing out of their respective places of work looking forward to the long weekend ahead of them.

My business hotel room was, well, Japanese and by that I mean, small.  There was enough space for a bed, desk and bathroom with a tiny walkway between the bed and the desk, but perfectly suited to fit my needs.  The view from the window was the typical view that you get from most buildings in Tokyo, the wall of the neighbouring Mizuho bank.

I arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 30 minutes late, after having figured I could make it through Tokyo station fast enough to get to the hotel and try and clean myself up a bit so that I didn’t appear to be the dishevelled human being that had spent the last 20 hours in transit.  After sorting out where MOFA was and where I was supposed to be I was escorted to a small room on the 3rd floor by an employee and a woman from the Japanese Tourism Board.  It appeared to be your average Japanese government office, but again, with a small difference in that very few lights were on.  “Setsuden,” the MOFA employee explained was the reason for the eerie lighting.  Once again, another sign that the disaster and it’s after effects are everywhere and that must be a constant reminder to the Japanese people even far away from Fukushim in the offices ofTokyo.

After going over travel documents and the like, I told the MOFA employees what I had planned.  When I asked what they wanted out of all of this from me they said that they want people to know that Japan is safe.  I told them that I didn’t think all of Japanwas indeed “safe” they responded that, well, most of Japan is.  And that made me think of a of the first contribution in Reimagining Japan by Yoichi Funabashi, the former editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun.  He says that Tohoku, “has always served as a power source, manufacturing supplier, breadbasket and labor force for Tokyo, functioning essentially as an outsourcer supporting Tokyo’s prosperity.”  It seemed to me that this was potentiallyTokyo using Tohoku once again.

The sheets that were given to me outlined that the other participants and had been invited to Japan to “deepen [our] understanding on the current situation in Japan…and to communicate what [we] see and experience in Japan on [our] return home.”  And that’s what I planned to do, little did I know how the coming days would effect me and how little I was prepared to deal with the seriousness of what was going on.

After my meeting with MOFA, I headed straight to a convenience store to quickly purchase everything that I needed.  By needed I mean, WANTED!  The things that made me feel like I was in Japan: canned cold coffee, Aquarius, an Asahi tallboy, a “genki drink,” an onigiri and some Japanese cigarettes.  After successfully opening the onigiri without tearing any of the seaweed, I drank from all of these things.  Coffee, followed by a genki drink, then a bit of Aquarius and from there onto the beer.

After relaxing for a few minutes and sending emails, tweets and facebook updates, I headed out and met up with another former JET that just happened to be in Tokyo for business.  Tucked into an izakaya on the 5th floor of a building that we had arbitrarily chosen, after meeting at Ochanomizu station, we started our nomi-houdai (all you can drink) and began reliving our past lives as ALTs.  It has only been a year since I had seen Keith, despite him having left Fukushima 3 years ago.  We met in Denver last year to attend the wedding of former JETs that had lived in Fukushima.  And just like it had been in Denver, it was if we had never parted ways and never had to say goodbye to each other.

That is one of the truly beautiful things about the JET programme, it seems like no matter where you go in the world, there’s someone there that you used to live in Japan with and it’s easy to fall back in to being friends.

As the night grew on and the beer flowed, I realized that the Japanese language is not exactly like riding a bike.  I’d liken it more to that sport you played through high school.  You used to be decent at it and you assume that you still will be, even though it’s been numerous years since you’ve even played.  That amazed feeling, when you realize how horrible you have become at it is exactly how I felt sitting across from Keith, who is Japanese-American, listening to him throw out blazing fast Japanese with ease and finding myself struggling for the words to order a beer.

We parted ways after a few hours of discussions of past JETs and what they’re doing now or where they’re at and just catching up on life.

I went to bed thinking about how I had traveled so far, but that it felt like a strange version of home, where everything was as it always had been, but was just shrouded in a light haze.

Pre-Japan thoughts – Return to Tohoku #2

This is the second post in my Return to Tohoku series.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was nervous while heading to the airport today.  Maybe it came from drinking a little bit more wine then I should have last night with friends.  But nonetheless an anxious nervousness swept over me as I loaded my bag in the car and grew as my girlfriend, dog and I, sped towards theOttawaairport.  Thankfully she talked and I was content to listen while I pet the dog in my lap.

I don’t know where this nervousness came from.  I’ve done this trip what seems like a million times.  Although, now sitting here rocketing above the Earth, north ofYellowknife, I am a little bit more calm and nervousness is slowly building into excitement.  I can’t see sleeping in the 9 hours I still have left, but we’ll see how I’m feeling in 5 or 6.

This trip is different then all others.  It’s not strictly business or travel for pleasure; it’s a mixed bag of everything.  It’s a trip that is a homecoming with business, reunions, government employees and tourist adventures all added in for good measure.  While I don’t expect a ticker-tape parade or anyone to even notice, for me, it will be huge.  Getting off that train inFukushimacity will probably be the best feeling I’ve had in awhile.

The nervousness I’m feeling may stem from my uncertainty.  What am I really going to find?  Is this place that up until a year ago was my home, really that different?  And what is expected of me?  While I understand the overall concept of having former JETs return to Japan, I’m not quite sure what I can do.  What can one person accomplish for a country they don’t live in?  I’m still trying to figure that one out, but in the meantime, I’m just going to write down everything that happens and whatever I do or come across and put it out on the internet. Continue reading

A Rough Guide To My Fukushima Trip – Return to Tohoku #1

Image via Nippon-Jin.com

Really quickly, below is a brief itinerary of my return to Tohoku trip.  I will be blogging all of it under the category of Return To Tohoku.  So, I guess this is the first entry.  I do still have a half-written blog, but given how busy I’ve been this last month and a half, I feel like the next time I’ll get to sit down and finish it all will be when I get on the plane that will take me from Toronto to Tokyo.  Below, I’ve mashed down the 8 page itinerary I created for myself to the bare bones skeleton, just to let people know where I’ll be at.  I’ve also added some links and facts that I honestly ripped right off of the websites sited.  Like I said, I just don’t have time. Continue reading

Still alive, just really busy.

So, it’s been a little bit since I’ve posted and I’m crazy busy. I’m halfway through a blog about the process of being accepted to the Return to Tohoku Initiative put together by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Tourism Board. I’ll be leaving on September 21st. While you wait with bated breath, please enjoy the following articles and interviews I’ve done recently.

First up, Ottawa Citizen. I’ve learned, these sites don’t archive all of their stuff, so I’ll be reproducing entire articles below for future reference so that there aren’t dead links later on. Click the link if you want to go to the actual article. Continue reading

Free one week stay for former Tohoku JETs who want to help

The JET alumni from Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima are all a flutter about the latest newsletter from the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest JET Alumni Associations a few days ago.  It seems that if you were a former JET in Miyagi, Iwate or Fukushima and if you stayed for at least 2 years, MOFA and the Japanese Tourist Agency will send you to that area for a week to do PR work and help out.  A friend sent me the email along with guidelines for applying.  JETwit.com also published an article about the potential for former JETs to return to their old stomping grounds.  I’m currently going through the motions of finding it if non-American alumni can apply.  Hopefully that’ll be the case.  If anyone has any information about this other than the links I’ve provided please put it in the comments below.  I’ll update this blog with the response I get from the embassy here in Ottawa as soon as I have it.  If you’re an American and ex-JET from one of the three prefectures listed, look into this if you want to go.

Here are the guidelines: Continue reading

Pedaling to normalcy in Tohoku.

It seems that even in a time of crisis (yes, it’s still a crisis 2 month after the earthquake), Japanese bureau-crazy still reigns supreme.  There is a serious need for bicycles in Ishinomaki, Miyagi and while the government there has bikes at their disposal, they won’t release them to individuals in need.   A request must be issued by a neighbourhood organization or a shelter in order to receive bikes from the government.  There are quite a few other prefectures that have access to bicycles as well.  But Ishinomaki hasn’t asked these other prefectures for help, even though they are in need and because of that, no one is helping them because the proper protocol isn’t being followed.  This is Japanese pride getting in the way, while it’s commendable, it isn’t helping anyone.  Attempting to circumvent this government system are Bikes for Japan and Free Tohoku, written by OurWomanInAbiko, who I’ve blogged about earlier.  OWIA wrote about the issues facing those who want bikes on the Free Tohoku Blog, here and here.

I was drawn to the plight of those in Ishinomaki who need bicycles by the flutter of tweets from OurManInAbiko.  They sum up the problem succinctly.